Although I am a big Stephen King fan, I had never paid much attention to Joyland. Maybe it was the cover which seemed unnecessarily garish. I had never even read the book’s blurb or any of the reviews. Whatever the reason I resisted reading this novel, I succumbed to my love of King’s writing and added it to my Kindle. It’s a good thing I gave in to that impulse because Joyland is one of the best crime ghost stories I’ve read in a while. I was captivated by the story, the characters, and, of course, King’s sharp writing.
This is one of those stories that leads you gently in; introducing the main character, flawed and vulnerable, and making you wonder what could possibly be so interesting it takes a book to tell the tale. Devin Jones is a likable and relatable character. Nursing a broken heart, the college student gets a job as a “carny” at an amusement park called Joyland. It’s summer in a small North Carolina town and Devin signs on at the amusement park in Heaven’s Bay. King sprinkles the story liberally with the language of carnies, “the talk.” Every character steps forward with a unique identity as mysteries unfold. And the mysteries are both scary and heartwarming. King has an uncanny ability to blend the tender with the violent, the sweet with the bitter, and the every day with the nightmare.
Devin Jones may be the narrator of the story, but there is a hell of a lot more to this than the adventures of a “twenty-one-year-old virgin” and a summer job at a small, local amusement park. Joyland may be the place families gather for fun, but there is far more to the place than Howie the Happy Hound, Happy Helpers, a fortune teller named Madame Fortuna (Rozzie Gold), Hollywood Girls with cameras, and the Wiggle Waggle Village. There’s Horror House. Every amusement park and carnival has one, a scary ride. This scary ride is extra special. Horror House was the scene of a murder; an unsolved murder. And that unsolved murder left a little something behind; the ghost of Linda Gray. Here lies the first mystery.
Stephen King can’t leave that mystery to stand alone, although it is a good one. There’s also the little boy in the wheelchair, the woman, and the Jack Russell Terrier that live in the big house on the beach. King artfully weaves these stories together, delicately connecting the dots. But even when I thought I knew the answer (and that happened more than once), I was taken by surprise. When the climax finally came in a hair-raising ride in the middle of a storm I was sitting up in bed practically hearing the thunder and watching the lightning flash.
Alongside the King horror is the poignant story of a young man inexplicably cast in the role of hero and detective, a mother and a boy with a special gift, and the pain of love and loss. As I said, King has an uncanny ability.